At this point, most people associate the Cuvée Buster - a wine named after Joe and Denyse's late dog and official Louis/Dressner mascot - with Thomas-Labaille's best barrels of Sancerre from the ultra-steep Monts Damnés vineyard. But the origins of the Cuvée Buster date back to 1998, and perhaps a history lesson is in order.
During a summer visit to Sancerre, Jean-Paul Labaille tasted Joe, Denyse and Kevin on a single barrel of 1997 (a legendary year throughout the Loire Valley). Up until that time, there were no burgundian barrels at the estate; everything was made in stainless steel, enamel-lined tanks or large, very old foudres. Jean-Paul wanted to bottle it as its own cuvée, and everyone agreed. However, when the time came to name the wine, names like "Cuvée Prestige" or "Vin Par Excellence", accompanied by the obligatory imagery of gold crowns, or bottlings named after the winemakers children, grandparent, mentor, horse, etc..., seemed not only lacking, but also completely meaningless in the ocean of wines claiming the exact same thing. Keeping true to Louis/Dressner's contrarian spirit, Joe - who had long been disdainful of the wine industry's pomp and tendency to take itself way too seriously - Denyse and Kevin decided to find the most flippant, irreverent name possible for this truly exceptional bottling. The Cuvée Buster was born.
The rules of the Cuvée Buster are as follows:
1. The wine must begin with a daring, innovative or introspective fluke of the winemaker with regards to his/her terroir or the special character of a particular vintage.
2. There are not more than 50 cases.
3. The wine must be enjoyable to drink on release.
As a way to keep this inside-joke going, Jean-Paul Labaille has continued adding the Buster neck label to his Monts Damnés each vintage, but the original idea was to display a one-off, unique bottle of wine. The Cuvée Buster record is as follows:
1. Thomas-Labaillle Sancerre Monts Damnés 1997 (continued every year since then, and using that same barrel)
2. Clos Roche Blanche Touraine Sauvignon 1998 (this would go on to be the Nº5 version, which started being made in too large a quantity to continue the CB designation)
3. Filliatreau Saumur-Champigny Clos Candi 1997 (normally blended with the other vineyards)
4. Domaine de la Pépière Old Vines 1997 (from the old vines in the Pépière parcel now used in Clisson wine. It had been vinified separately because some bunches had been affected by an ultra rare phenomenon: noble rot on Melon de Bourgogne. Marc Ollivier, who had earlier sworn never to adorn one of his bottlings with the picture of the "ugliest dog in the universe", ate his words to celebrate this most unorthodox of Muscadets, and it was released it in 2001)
5. Franck Peillot Altesse de Montagnieu 1999 (a single barrel vinification that merited a special bottling)
6. Mas des Chimères Grenache Vin de Pays 2000 (a particular vinification we tasted in the cellar and asked Guilhem to bottle for us)
7. Laurent Barth Pinot d''Alsace 2006 (Pinot Noir pressed as blanc because the vintage did not merit vinification as a red wine)
8. Somewhere in all this, there was another special bottling - Château d'Oupia Minervois "Hommage à Poupette" 2004: an all-Grenache wine we tasted in André's cellar. The family dog, Poupette, a miniature poodle that was none-too-fond of Buster, had recently died and we therefore thought it proper to give props.
Today, we continue this tradition by announcing the 9th Cuvée Buster, the first in 8 years and even more exciting, the first from Italy! Introducing the 2000 La Stoppa Cuvée Buster!
The story of this Buster goes like this: when La Stoppa proprietor Gian-Carlo Ageno was faced with the post-devastation of phylloxera in the 1920's, he used this opportunity to replant many of Europe's noble grapes in his vineyards. Alongside the indigenous Bonarda and Barbera varieties, he began planting, amongst many others, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Tokay, Pinot Gris and Cabernet Sauvignon. The goal was, perhaps naively, to produce world class wines with world class grapes.
Fast forward 60 years later, with a young Giulio Armani hired as head vignaiolo of La Stoppa. For over fifteen years, he tried his best to produce wines up to par with Burgundy, Bordeaux and Alsace. But after years of trial and (mostly) error, Giulio realized that many of these early ripening varieties were simply too fragile to grow in the very warm climates of Emilia-Romagna. In such, the decision to rip a large percentage of these vines was made with new owner Elena Pantaleoni.
By 1996, Elena and Giulio had both agreed to replant the estate in the more suited and indigenous Bonarda and Barbera. Still, Giulio needed to conduct one more experiment for peace of mind. This involved sourcing out three grape varieties that were ideally suited for La Stoppa's terroir, to see if it was in fact possible to make a world class wine from another region's grapes. After much diligent research, he decided to plant a small amount of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre to see what would happen. The result is the 2000 Cuvée Buster.
"But wait!" screams a probably non-existent La Stoppa nerd who knows everything about the estate, "Didn't they end up going through with the plan and replanting everything in Bonarda and Barbera, along with a little bit of Malvasia di Candia?"
They did, and that's what makes this wine so special: it's the very reason Giulio went through with the decision in the first place! Yes, this 2000 "GSM" blend is great; in fact, Giulio was shocked at how much he liked the wine's balance, purity of fruit and elegance. But what surprised him the most was that the wine tasted like a place: it tasted like La Stoppa. And by confirming his suspicions that great wine comes from terroir and not grapes, the estate began its final conversion in the direction we all know and love.
When we first tasted it last fall, Giulio poured it to us more as an afterthought than anything else; the wine was un-labelled, and had been sitting in the cellar for over a decade. Kevin's Buster-Radar (trademark pending) instantly started beeping, and after a few back and forths with Elena and a bit of tug-of-war with Giulio (who considers this "his" wine), we were able to secure some.
This story, like so many others, is what consistently inspires us to do what we do. Our growers are a truly curious bunch, and their undying dedication to making the best wine possible - in this case putting over a decade's hard work into question - validates everything we believe in as importers.
VIVA LE BUSTER!
"Wine has always been made this way: even as little as 50 years ago, all the great wines of Italy were "natural" simply by being rooted in tradition. I'm astonished how things changed so much, so fast. People were so quick to forget."
Big boss Elena Pantaleoni dropping knowledge at L'Herbe Rouge! As you may know, we are now working with La Stoppa on a quasi-national level, and boy oh boy are we excited! Go read the interview on the brand new La Stoppa profile!
This blog post was Clos Rougeard Approved.
Phase 2 of our trip consisted of one of our favorite European tasting events, Vini di Vignaioli in Fornovo. It was a great time to taste with Luciano Saetti, Casa Coste Piane, Cantina Giardino, Zélige-Caravent, Francis Boulard, Monte dall' Ora, Montesecondo, Elisabetta Foradori, Le Coste, Camillo Donati, Natalino Del Prete, Fonterenza, Cascina degli Ulivi, Cotar, Massa Vecchia and Altura.
We also scooped up some very exciting new goodies for you, but that's going to have to stay top secret for now. Also, big shout out to Diego Sorba and the Tabarro crew who once again showed us a great time two nights in a row. Hilariously (disturbingly?) enough, a quick web search landed me on this picture a random girl took of the first round of wines Diego picked out for us.
We drank the Testalonga.
From Parma, we drove off to Rivergaro to visit Elena Pantaleoni and Giulio Armani of La Stoppa. For many of you this estate needs no introduction, as the wines have been available in the U.S for many years. What I CAN say is that we are extremely happy to be their new national importer (with the exception of Massachusetts and Oregon), and welcome them to the Louis/Dressner family.
La Stoppa sits on top of a hill, and consists of medieval living quarters (and a cellar) surrounded by 30 hectares of vines.
We started the visit with a lunch/tasting combo. Elena and guest-star Arianna Occhipinti had just landed THAT DAY from a trip to Montreal (where they work with Oenopole), and told us about dancing all night at a Champagne party where Biz Markie was DJing. Because I know you're not going to believe me (partly because I enjoy keeping the Dressner tradition of making stuff up alive and well), here is proof that it actually happened.
What, no Boulard?
At lunch, we tried the current releases of Ageno and all the reds, including some back vintages of of the Barbera della Stoppa. The young vine rosso and frizzante have been renamed Trebbiolo this year. The name comes from the vines' proximity to the Trebbia river, and Elena admitted that the last thing she expected was everyone to keep asking her if the wine is a blend of Trebbiano and Nebbiolo. This has apparently been happening A LOT, which could be avoided if people realized:
1. La Stoppa is located in Emilia-Romagna, were neither Trebbiano or Nebbiolo is planted.
2. How disgusting that blend would be and how no one in their right mind would ever produce it.
After lunch, it was time to visit some surrounding vineyard sites with Giulio.
Almost all of the estate's 30 h surround the living quarters and cellar. The vines are planted 75% in Barbera/Bornada and 25% in Malvasia at 200 m elevation; these are the traditional grapes of this region, but have only been grown here since 1995. You see, the viticultural history of the estate is a bit topsy-turvy...
Over a hundred years ago, a wealthy lawyer named Ageno owned the property and decided to plant 30 hectares of French varietals: Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. The idea, of course, was to emulate Bordeaux, Burgundy and Sancerre (you can see photos of some of these old labels on the home page of their official website that are actually bottled as "Bordeaux"). In 1973, Elena's father bought the estate and continued making wine from these grapes. Giulio Armani took over as head vignaiolo in 1980 and for 15 years, tried his best to produce French style wines: he read every book on viticulture and oenology he could get his hands on, following Sancerre and Bordeaux "recipes" to the best of his ability. Furthermore, chemical treatments were used in the vineyards and the wines were yeasted, acidified and heavily sulfured.
But Giuilo is a smart man and a thinker, and the decade plus of trying to crack the code of his vines finally led to a simple but life-altering realisation: you just can't make Burgundy or Sancerre in Emilia-Romagna, a very hot region where grapes often end up being high in alcohol and low in acidity.
"Every year, I would see the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes completely burnt from the sun. They weren't meant to be here. We understood we had to make a wine of terroir."
So in 1995, Giulio and Elena decided to return to tradition and replant the local red grapes Barbera and Bornada, and well as Malvasia for white. And lo and behold, this instantly solved their acidity problem!
"The secret to making good red wine in this area is Barbera, which has very high acidity and thrives in this climate. It is needed to balance the wines."
Returning to tradition also meant re-evaluating the work in the vineyard, and a shift was immediately made to organic viticulture. These ideas extended to to the cellar, where Giulio started practicing spontaneous fermentations and eliminating any rectification/manipulation during vinification. Today, the wines being produced by La Stoppa are undoubtedly Emilia.
And that's a cool story.
Next up, we visit the Alessandra, Gian-Luigi and Vittorio Bera! Oh, I almost forgot:
HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!